By Mike Goodson/Sports Correspondent
Traditions run deep in the Etowah County area. For one local family, spring and summer means carrying on a family tradition that began four generations ago, a tradition of umpiring local baseball by the family that has excelled in local sports. This is the story of the Cooper family.
Robert Neil Cooper was originally from New Hope, from where he graduated high school in 1947. He moved to the Gadsden area in 1948 with his wife Dollie. Neil had been an outstanding athlete in basketball and baseball. He developed a one-handed basketball set shot while stationed in Newfoundland while in military service. Neil used this shot while playing independent basketball in the Gadsden area and was known as the “Kid From New Hope.” He later coached Little League baseball and umpired high school baseball for a time. The Coopers had two sons who would continue the family tradition of great athletes.
Born in 1949, Robert Nelson “Bobby” Cooper was a natural athlete who played football, basketball and baseball at Emma Sansom High School. He played basketball at Gadsden State Junior College and competed in local fast pitch softball for nine seasons. Bobby actually got a hit off of the “King” (Eddie Feigner) when “The King and His Court” played an exhibition game in Gadsden.
Bobby began umpiring baseball in 1971 and quickly moved up the officiating ranks. He umpired his first high school game in 1972 and his first junior college game in 1973. With the help of local sports legends M.L. Brackett and Pat Adkison, Bobby soon moved up to four-year college ball.
“Because of the hours I worked at the steel plant, I could umpire a lot my first two years and I got a lot of calls,” he said. “Ralph Muskett and I called a lot [of games] together, including many games at the University of Alabama and Auburn. Ralph and I called some big games together, including the AHSAA state tournament in Montgomery and a live ESPN Game of the Week between Mississippi State and Alabama.”
In all, the two best friends have called more than 1,200 games together. Cooper has umpired the NAIA Regional Tournament and the Babe Ruth World Series in 2007 in Andalusia.
Bobby has been known as “The Voice of the South” as the play-by-play announcer for the Gadsden State Cardinal basketball and volleyball programs, a job he has had now held for 35 years.
“My biggest thrill was when Jimmy Smothers carried me to meet Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant during Tennessee week,” he said.
In January of 2011, Bobby was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. All this would do, however, was slow Cooper down for a short while. Today, he evaluates umpires and is an instructor in district and state camps.
Bobby’s younger brother Terry also has had an amazing career in the local and state sport’s scene. Terry was an outstanding athlete at Emma Sansom High School in baseball and basketball. The younger Cooper is a member of the Emma Sansom Wall of Fame, the Birmingham Southern Hall of Fame, the Alabama High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame and the Etowah County Hall of Fame. The former athletic director at Mountain Brook High School, the Spartans have claimed over 80 state titles during his tenure.
Bobby’s son Patrick is the third generation of the Cooper family to umpire baseball locally. He was a three-sport athlete at Southside High School, where he was all-county selection in both basketball and baseball. He graduated from SHS in 1998.
“I worked the first varsity game [Patrick] called at Glencoe,” Bobby said.
The three generations of the Cooper umpires recently was joined by a fourth generation. Bobby’s grandson Derrick Bowling started calling AHSAA baseball in 2016. He currently is calling middle school and junior varsity ball and can move up to varsity when he reaches 21 years of age. Bobby’s son-in-law Brian Ware is also an umpire and is known by locals as “The Voice of the Panthers” for his work as the public address announcer at Southside High football games.